The Privilege of Student, Experiential Learning, Engineering Competition Teams (SELECT)

Summary from the Grant Proposal
Intellectual Merit
After 20 years of targeted resource allocation to broaden participation, representation of certain populations remains disproportionately low. Student, Experiential Learning, Engineering Competition Teams (SELECT) are fore-fronted as the hallmark of engineering programs and are commonly featured in materials shared with prospective students and donors. SELECT provide an opportunity for engineering students to practice engineering technical and professional skills while engaged in competitive, experiential learning, design/build projects. However, in spite of efforts to increase participation of under-represented populations (URP) in engineering programs, participation rates of URP students in many competition teams are exceptionally low, even when normalized for engineering enrollment.

The research literature investigating student competition teams includes only a few papers founded on a research design including a research question, data collection and structured analysis, with only one investigating URP participation from a gender perspective, and none exploring other dimensions of diversity. This paucity is in stark contrast to the wealth of well-structured research examinations of curricular-based team work, although considerations of race/ethnicity and gender are generally absent here as well. The Research Institute for STEM Education will build on a history of qualitative research, supplemented with quantitative data, identifying factors contributing to equity and broadening participation in engineering by addressing the research question: What factors contribute to cultures of inclusion or exclusion within Student, Experiential Learning, Engineering Competition Teams (SELECT)?

Continuing to answer the call for social science perspectives, methods and frameworks to questions of culture in STEM education, this research project will use a cultural constructivist theoretical framework and the theoretical model of inequality regimes (Acker, Gender and Society, 2006) to structure interpretations of interviews of SELECT team members, advisors and sponsors; students who do not participate in SELECT; and corporate recruiters. Additional data will include participant observations, surveys, and artifact analysis.

Broadening Participation
“Are girls allowed to be on the teams?” a question asked by a high school junior, National Merit Scholar, female prospective student touring our campus engineering facilities. While we do not know if this observation deterred this female future engineer from majoring in engineering, it points strongly to the potentially negative impact of showcasing the preponderance of white males in SELECT membership. National conversations about changing the messages regarding engineering have focused on several aspects including the need to foreground role models of female and non-white students, so that young people can “see themselves” as engineers. The lack of diversity in SELECT very loudly counters messages of inclusion and opportunity.

Although national data must be pieced together from a variety of sources, it appears that approximately 15,000-20,000 (out of about 300,000) engineering undergraduates may be competing each year in SELECT. SELECT programs are resource intensive endeavors. From budgets of tens of thousands of dollars, access to faculty time, faculty mentoring, and space and facilities, these programs consume a significant amount of institutional resources for relatively small groups of students (each SELECT typically has fewer than 20 members). The question of whether URPs have equal opportunity to participate in SELECT is therefore one of whether URPs get equal opportunity to benefit from these resources. As preliminary evidence suggests that SELECT exclude URP, this lack of opportunity may contribute to inequities that extend into students’ professional lives after college. Furthermore, SELECT have the potential to engage “hands-on” learners or the creative, abstract, non-linear thinkers who do not learn as well or as easily though textbook/classroom lecture pedagogy. This opportunity should be open to members of URP too.

Students who participate on a team composed of other students with the same backgrounds, experiences, ways of thinking, etc. are deprived of the opportunity to fully develop the necessary professional skills for working with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. By identifying factors contributing to cultures of exclusion so that they can be addressed and factors contributing to cultures of inclusion for replication, this research project will open more spaces in engineering to the students we most need to encourage.

Publications from Project